The fall and rise of the Paço de Giela by Jeremy Pickard

Monday, September 30, 2019, 17:19
The Palace of Giela in a state of ruin

We first visited the Paço de Giela more than ten years ago. In spite of its status as a national monument this modest cross between a castle and a manor house was then crumbling into decay and we were, as far as we could tell, among its few visitors.

To find out how the Paço de Giela received a second lease of life and the renactment of Portugal's early history, click here.

It was far from remote, sat on a small hill just outside the thriving market town of Arcos de Valdevez, and it was possible to enter a couple of rooms on the ground floor if one was willing to force ones way through bramble and bracken and to risk the possible fall of yet more rotting timbers from the remnants of the floor above.

The interior with collapsed ceilings and encroaching undergrowth

The 14th century stonework was scarcely visible behind wild greenery and yet the crenelated walls and odd pieces of carved wood still held a certain melancholy charm.

Year by year the site seemed more neglected and more likely to decay gracefully back into the hillside. We speculated whether a really big lottery win would be sufficient to arrest the collapse – maybe even make the neighbouring farmhouse (apparently built from stone recycled or plundered from the castle) habitable?

Overgrown and semi-ruined barley twist window

Such fantasies were soon dismissed – not only did we never buy a lottery ticket but there was something vaguely distasteful about foreigners aspiring to interfere with the Portuguese management of their heritage - they certainly have plenty of it to cope with.

And then we read that the local council had managed to secure funding – local, national and European – to restore the Paço and to open it to the public. Sure enough, in 2015, we were proudly given a tour of the place by an enthusiastic newly appointed guide who, in excellent English, showed us around its immaculately repointed stonework, its almost sterile paving and its new steel framed first floor.

Room with steel bars and textile display

Eventually we were left to watch a video, in Portuguese, in which a couple of improbably handsome knights fought in single combat against a stunningly beautiful backdrop of green hills and wild countryside.

We enjoyed this last visit, and wished the enterprise well, but were, perhaps, a little regretful for the disappearance of the more personal and privileged experience of the place we had first known.

And then, in July last year, we picked up a leaflet in Arcos advertising the historical recreation of the battle of Valdevez, to be staged at the Paço de Giela and to include entertainment for the whole family on a medieval theme.

Gateway to the re-enactment

Now the Portuguese, especially in the North, are extremely proud of their medieval history – they successfully resisted the Moorish reign over most of Iberia for 800 years and also asserted their independence from the Christian rulers of Spanish Leon and Galicia. Consequently, medieval fairs are a regular alternative to religious 'festas' throughout the summer, most notably in the world heritage setting of Guimarães, Portugal's first capital, but also in many other towns. However, we had never actually attended such an event, so the offer of one on our doorstep was irresistible.

Entrance decorated with swags of cloth

The first thing to strike us was just how splendid the Paço do Giela looked when the clean stone walls were softened by the gay banners and lengths of cloth with which it had been decorated. This impression only grew as the light faded and was replaced by the soft glow of lights or the flickering fires and torches of the re-enactors and, ultimately by the stars. The odd fairy tale touch, such as the figure of Rapunzel in one window, only added to the atmosphere.

The keep with decorative banners in the foreground

Secondly it seemed that a surprisingly high proportion of the crowd attending the day were dressed in medieval style. In reality it was probably only about 10%, but nonetheless it was not only the single roman soldier who seemed an anachronism but also those in Nike T shirts or bright modern fabrics.

Closer observation showed that some medieval dress was more authentic than others – the nuns wearing soft leather slippers under their stifling black habits were clearly regular and dedicated medievalists, while the effect of the elaborate headgear of some other ladies was undermined by the trainers they wore. Nonetheless many people had clearly made an effort – as had the local council, carefully, for example, dressing the rubbish bins in sacking to avoid a jarring note.

Thirdly we were very aware that – as is usually the case in Portugal – the event seemed to engage all generations. Of course little girls the world over do not seem to take too much persuading to wear princess dresses and to put circlets of flowers in their hair (mercifully it seems that pink was unknown to medieval Portugal), but I am not sure how readily their British teenage brothers and sisters would take to appearing in public in costume, let alone being seen in company with mother and aunts similarly dressed up. Of course there was plenty of age specific entertainment – face painting and donkey rides as well as a miniature castle for the younger ones to play in – but in general whole families listened to the medieval music or stopped to watch the acrobat in his hoop or even joined the sporadic attempts to get people dancing in a vaguely medieval style.

Activités connecter with the re-enactment and public enjoyment

As to the event itself, there was plenty of ancillary entertainment. Some of the re-enactors had set up tents from which they demonstrated various medieval arts – everything from armour making and cookery to minting coins, embroidery, calligraphy and weaving. Local producers were selling honey, jams and embroidery while some enterprising souls had set up as astrologers and palm readers. In the spirit of the times one man had a white goat tethered to a black ram which toured the site, while the falconry tent and the pony rides were attracting interest. Of course, there was also the usual area set aside for various cafes and bars to sell their refreshments while diners were entertained by groups playing medieval instruments (as well as some more modern innovations), accompanied in at least one case, by a belly dancer.

A knight prepares for the re-anactment as people take their seats

There was no doubt, however, that the main event was the re-enactment. We took our places in the queue for the banked seats by the arena while more and more people arrived from the area, the stars emerged overhead and the sound system played a sort of all-purpose instrumental musak. We speculated, with some anxiety, as to how the re-enactment of a battle, albeit one resolved by single combat, could be staged without a cast of thousands. In the event we need not have worried, it turns out that six caparisoned horses, milling about in the dark and only seen clearly when in the spotlight, can easily fill an arena.

Unfortunately, our Portuguese was by no means up to following the story as narrated in front of us but that did not really matter, although it did not help that that the Duke of Portugal and his rival the King of Leon were called similar names Afonso and Alfonso. After a hesitant start featuring a comic bishop in a bath and some impressive (if wobbly) acrobatic spirit dancers the heroics we had expected began. Moreover, it seemed to us that heroics was the operative word. Three Spanish spies, apparently lulled to sleep by the sprits, lay still on the floor of the arena while the Portuguese knights galloped around the place with very real steel-clad horses feet flying about the place. Having captured the spies, they dragged one of them across the ground by a rope behind one of the horses and presented him to the bishop (now properly dressed to the relief of all). The sense of real peril was made more acute by the apparent reluctance of the powerful white stallion belonging to the Duke of Portugal to allow his rider to mount. Afonso had to deliver quite a few lines as he hopped on one leg with the other perilously in the stirrup while the horse stepped warily to one side. For some reason Afonso  chose to communicate with Alfonso, the King of Leon, by means of a Harris hawk, which, we were surprised to see, seemed totally undisturbed by the darkness, the crowd the lights and the noise and showed the horses how it was possible to perform exactly as in rehearsal.

Having negotiated a score draw in single combat, with both dukes abiding by the most perfect chivalric manners, the two sides agreed to celebrate their understanding by staging a tournament. Unfortunately, after a brief but impressive display of horsemanship the tournament broke down into actual hostilities – we suspect the knight who had been captured earlier and restored to the Spanish side may well have been looking for trouble. Naturally on this occasion the Duke of Portugal triumphed thus – it is alleged – securing Portuguese independence.

As an entertainment the whole event far surpassed the neat video we had seen on our earlier visit to the Paço do Giela. The appropriateness of the castle as a backdrop for such a performance may even reconcile us to its restoration, the finale of fireworks over the parapets bringing a memorable end to the evening.

Have you been to a re-enactment? If so, do write in and  tell us about it.  (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)

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